Ahhh Laos…a chill, beautiful, affordable, and friendly country. Here, things move at a slower pace and after the whirlwind that is Vietnam we decided to embrace the pace, traveling by river boat, trekking into the mountains, and living with local families. We began our three weeks in Laos in the idyllic towns along the Nam Ou river, where saw-toothed mountains shoot out of the water, tribal villages are tucked into the hills, electricity is a celebrated event from 7-10pm, and there are more boats than cars.
The Long Journey to Northeastern Laos
Getting to this lovely area of northeastern Laos was no easy feat. We caught the last minibus out of Vietnam before the seven-day Tet New Year shutdown (phew!) which left at 11pm and arrived to the Dien Bien Phu border crossing at 4am — a painful four hours before immigration opened. We finally crossed the Vietnam border only to realize there it’s three miles to the Laos side and there isn’t any public transit to get there. We hitchhiked across limbo land, paid our $35 visa, then negotiated with seemingly every driver in Laos until we got a decent rate to the river town of Muang Khua. All in all it took us about 17 hours to travel the 344 miles. And before you ask…yes, it was worth it!
Boat from Muang Khua
Even though it’s a pretty cute river town, Muang Khua is really just a transit hub to get to the road-less and magical Muang Noi Neua. The famed town has become a bit “touristy” but in reality only the hardcore backpackers make it this far. Our boat was filled with some of the most inspiring travelers….Three French friends who decided to move to Australia and spend eight months getting there overland. Then there was a 65-year old couple who had been backpacking off and on for the past 40 years together. We were all crammed on the floor of this boat for six hours, swapping one amazing travel story after the other.
Besides the great company, the scenery made the long ride fly by. Cruising the winding river, we saw massive karst mountains, fishing villages, kids skinny dipping, and an open window into Laos life.
Muang Noi Neua
Muang Noi Neua is a town without cars, banks, fixed electricity, or internet and that’s what’s great about it! We found a good guesthouse, Aloune Mai (40,000 kip/$4.75 a night), with thatch walls and a hammock overlooking the river, then we meandered over to this awesome restaurant, Nicksa’s Place, with all you can eat curry pumpkin, sticky coconut rice, and fried bamboo for 15,000 kip or $1.75.
So that three hours of electricity each day? It comes from a dammed river, using sticks, scraps of plastic, and a boat propeller working in reverse that’s charging a row of batteries. Seems ridiculous but when power lines don’t reach your village, you find a way! These were set up everywhere on the river to give the town a little bit of juice each night. You can be certain no kids leave the light on in this town!
Hiking to the Hill Tribe Villages
Beyond the main town there are hiking trails leading to various villages where Hmong and Khamu people live more traditional lifestyles. We hiked to one listed in our guidebook then the second day a local guy gave us directions through flower fields to this village that had probably never seen a white person before.
The Village of Ban Hoy Seen
In the village of Ban Hoy Seen, I loved the stilted houses and how efficient they are with such a small footprint. The space beneath the house becomes a shady spot for relaxing, working, or sleeping on hot nights. The outside walls had hooks and lines for storing household goods and keeping the inside free of clutter. We roamed the small town, admiring the ladies weaving, the wild onions hanging out to dry, and the kids playing games in the dirt.
Tham Kang Cave
On our way back to town we dipped into the Tham Kang, a cool cave and former bomb shelter used during the Vietnam war. A little known fact is that Laos is the most bombed country in the world. During the Vietnam war the communist Viet Minh from Northern Vietnam would transport weapons and supplies through Laos on their way to attack the Southern Vietnam, and in turn the US military attacked these supply routes with full force.
Scars of The Secret War
Landmines and bombshells still litter much of Laos as painful reminders of the past. In working on road construction (sadly there is now a road to Muang Noi Neua), villagers were digging up shells left and right. Seeing our country’s ordnance leaning against a local family’s white picket fence gave us the chills.
Making Peace with Moonshine
Just as we were feeling like hated Americans, this lovely lady invited us to try her homemade Lao Lao rice whiskey. We were marveling at the make-shift still she had set up with a 50 gallon plastic drum, sieve and a bucket then she motioned us over for a cap-full of the national drink.
Downstream to Nong Khiaw
We stayed in Mong Noi for two action-packed days then took a boat an hour south to the town of Nong Khiaw. The area is equally gorgeous with a bit more infrastructure (like a bridge and a finished road to the outside world.)
Laos Standard Time
We stayed on the Ban Hop Soun side of the river and didn’t do much but revel in the beauty of this place. With a hammock and a Beer Lao, we quickly adjusted to LST (Laos Standard Time).
LAOS RIVER SLIDESHOW >>>